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Mass Manipulation of Young Minds

Entertainment makers are our partners in shaping kids' attitudes toward drugs. We need reality, not make-believe.

January 02, 1997|BARRY R. McCAFFREY | Barry R. McCaffrey is the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy

In our national effort to combat substance abuse, the entertainment industry has often been targeted unfairly as the creator of a popular culture that sends inappropriate drug messages to youth. The truth is, Hollywood writers, producers and directors are parents, community leaders and educators--in the best sense of the word--just like the rest of us. Culture is a joint product that the media reflect as much as invent. In fact, most mass media mirror an America envied around the globe. Recent studies show that we do have a problem in terms of rising adolescent drug use, but blame should not be focused on one industry.

One study found that youngsters are less likely to turn to addictive drugs if they have a concerned adult spending time with them. In the wake of shattered families and the need for two-parent wage earners, the adults talking to our children frequently reach them through TV, film, video games, radio, music, the Internet and advertising. We call on the mass media to honor the highest ideals that make the creative arts the repository of our collective cultural heritage.

While overall drug use in America has declined for the last 15 years, from 23 million regular users to 12 million, substance abuse among young people has grown during the past five years. One-third of eighth-graders report the use of illicit drugs, including inhalants. About 15% admit to having drunk more than five alcoholic beverages in a row during the previous two weeks. The National Survey on Drug Abuse found that marijuana was used by 77% of current drug users (9.8 million of the estimated 12.8 million Americans who used an illicit drug during the month prior to being interviewed). The report, "Cigarettes, Alcohol, Marijuana: Gateways to Illicit Drug Use," showed that children who used marijuana were 85 times more likely to use cocaine. Heroin use among adolescents has doubled. There are 3.6 million Americans hooked on cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and new "designer" drugs.

In facing the challenge of drug abuse, the media have never been less monolithic. Fragmentation is rampant in the entertainment business. Vertical integration of media conglomerates adds pressure to the marketplace and the creative process. Cable television now cuts into network territory, and competition among stations means that less free air time is available for public service announcements to combat drug use. The number of these has dropped. Commercial forces work against children's programming, where positive role models can be presented, because advertising targets viewers aged 18 to 49 as the prime consumer market.

Changes in viewer habits have also worked against drug education. Channel surfing on a remote control leads TV watchers away from public service announcements.

In general, the speed of mass communication mitigates against exploring an issue carefully as people's attention span decreases in correlation with shorter, rapid-fire presentation. ABC's Ted Koppel has noted that sound bites in news broadcasts have gone down from an average of 22 seconds to eight seconds. Furthermore, pro-drug messages are communicated to our children through the most sophisticated, multimedia techniques while anti-drug forces typically fight back with bumper stickers: that is, with one-dimensional approaches.

The intensification of media effects such as virtual reality has been coupled with a thirst for heightened experience and risk-taking in our culture. Exaggerated proportions and greater degrees of violence are related to this trend. This mentality provides the context for drug use either as a "high" beyond normal experience or as an instant solution to discomfort in a now-oriented society. The glamorization of drugs in "heroin chic" fashions encourages their use. Technology has made America stronger and faster in every respect; the demand for intensity and "speed" through drugs is a negative counterpart to these industrial changes.

There have been excellent initiatives such as the push for three hours a week of educational programming, some of which can be devoted to drug education. Mediascope, a nonprofit organization that promotes social and health issues, published a nationwide study of media violence. A similar, quantified study of drugs in the media would be useful. In addition, there has been considerable interest in media literacy so that children and parents alike will understand how subtle messages influence viewers. ABC, HBO and the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences are developing excellent anti-drug campaigns. Programs like "ER" and "NYPD Blue" usually depict public health issues accurately, showing the results of destructive behavior. However, the biggest challenge we face today is a willingness by some in the entertainment industry to produce whatever sells.

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